Oct 13, 2013

House (1977)

As far as I am concerned, virtually everything about post-WWII Japanese culture, especially in relation to cinema, is hopelessly silly and superficial in a bizarre half-Americanized/half-feminized sort of way, as if the collective unconscious of the alpha-East Asian race was raped by Yanks and no film seems to express this distinctly bizarre phenomenon of cultural cuckoldry than the classic avant-garde horror-comedy House (1977) aka Hausu directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. Rather absurdly, the birth of House came as a result of the Japanese film production company Toho approaching auteur Ôbayashi, who had previously only worked on experimental shorts, and asking him to create a film in the spirit of Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster Jaws (1975), however House inevitably evolved into one of the most brazenly goofy and carelessly cartoonish celluloid ghost stories ever made, as a sort of jaded Jap Suspiria (1977) meets The Evil Dead (1981), except more recklessly wacky and made with cutesy Japanese schoolgirls suffering from exceedingly eccentric Electra complexes in mind. And, indeed, the story for House was largely inspired by the ideas of director's daughter Chigumi, which were eventually turned into a script by Chiho Katsura, though it would be about two years before the film was made as auteur Ôbayashi had to do a lot of promotion at Toho before they would let him director the pet project (apparently, no director at Toho wanted to direct the film as they thought it would ruin their career, so they eventually let Ôbayashi do it himself). In part thematically inspired by the American nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, which auteur Ôbayashi, being born in Hiroshima, experienced as a child and lost virtually all of his childhood friends as a result, House is a sort of excessive escapist tale that warns viewers that if they dwell on the past, especially in relation to the pain and suffering of the Second World War, they will degenerate into a hateful human creature of sorts who resents everything about the present, thereupon making the film a fiercely modernist work created for the pansy post-samurai generation. Although never receiving the same unbeatable success as Spielberg’s outstandingly overrated shark flick Jaws, House was a box office hit in Japan, even if the film was a critical failure of sorts that mainly received negative reviews, which is no surprise considering the curiously flamboyant and campy film is about as serious as a fart attack as a childishly nonsensical cinematic work that positively personifies the phrase ‘guilty pleasure.’ Originally released as a double feature with a seemingly ridiculous romance film entitled Pure Hearts in Mud and sporting the morbidly ‘inviting’ tagline “How Seven Beauties Were Eaten!,” House is avant-garde cinema at its most tastelessly palatable, as if made by Werner Nekes' half-caste Jap bastard brother for the Disney company, and horror cinema at its most horrendous hokey and anti-horrific, as if specially tailored for most the impotent and idiotic of white American Japanophiles. 

 Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is a popular and, apparently, ‘Gorgeous’ Japanese schoolgirl who seems to get wet just thinking about spending her summer vacation with with her widowed father (Saho Sasazawa), a film composer who scores films in Italy (even bragging to his daughter, “Leone said my music was better than Morricone’s”), but when Papa, who certainly knows best, comes home and greets his excited daughter, she is sent into a minor depression when he reveals he has a new wife and she has a new stepmother named Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi). Considering Gorgeous’ equally gorgeous mother died only a couple years before, she is not exactly ready for a new mother, so she writes a letter to her aunt asking if she and her six sassy schoolgirl friends can spend summer vacation with her. A lonely old spinster who lives all by her lonesome in an old traditional house in the middle of the country, Gorgeous' aunt (Yōko Minamida) naturally accepts Gorgeous’ request, but little does the naïve niece realize that her mother’s sister is a miserable old maid who, still waiting for the young soldier who promised to marry her when he came back from fighting during the Second World War, is a bitter (and quite literally) bloodthirsty bitch who dines on the blood of young, unmarried girls. With her motley crew of six zany and superficially idiosyncratic friends, including Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato), Sweet (Masayo Miyako) and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Gorgeous heads to the plastically pretty pastoral lands of the country to her bittersweet auntie’s house and on the way they buy a watermelon from a morbidly obese and ominous farmer fellow (Asei Kobayashi) who tells the way to the aunt’s house, sinisterly stating to himself after the girls leave, “We haven’t had visitors for long time. I’m sure…the lady will be very pleased.” And, indeed, when Gorgeous and her gals arrive, Auntie, who has creepy white hair and is wheelchair bound, is quite pleased, but for all the wrong reasons. After presenting Auntie the watermelon, the girls are given a tour of the house, which soon begins attacking the girls in somewhat harmless way. When Mac later goes to retrieve the watermelon, which had been placed in a well to keep it refrigerated, she never returns and when Fantasy goes to look for the watermelon, she friends Mac’s animated decapitated noggin in the well instead of a juicy fruit, thus ushering in the funny foreboding phantasmagoria at the less than humble haunted abode. After dismembered Mac’s head bites Fantasy on the buttocks, the heteromorphic house of horrors takes on a surreally supernatural form, with skeletons dancing kookily in what seems like a warped funhouse on East Asian acid. 

 After going into her aunt’s room, putting on her lipstick, and staring into her mirror, Gorgeous becomes possessed by her mirror, which cracks (with blood draining out and all), as if Auntie has taken over her body. While Gorgeous manages to walk out the front door seemingly unscathed, the rest of the girls are locked inside the demonic house and when the girls try to find Auntie to unlock the door, the only thing they find is mangled Mac’s severed hand in a jar. Melody makes the unwitting mistake of continuing to play the piano to keep her fearful friends’ spirits up, but when Prof and Kung Fu later go to see her, her fingers have been eaten off and her entire body is inevitably consumed by the viciously voracious piano. After spotting Gorgeous sporting her aberrant aunt’s bridal gown, Kung Fu finds Sweet’s body being eaten by a tall grandfather clock. Scared and desperate, the surviving girls, Prof, Fantasy and Kung Fu, barricade themselves in the upper floor of the house, where they read Auntie’s diary and realize the sadistic spinster still believes her fiancé is coming back for her, but they are interrupted by a giant-sized head of Gorgeous that states, “I’m in my aunt’s world” and that Auntie died many years ago and that “she wanted to be married so badly that her body remained alive after her death. And she eats all the unmarried girls who come here.” Immediately after Gorgeous’ head goes wild, various appliances around the house attack the girls and Prof—the smartest girl in the lot—concludes that killing the aunt's white and furry cat, Blanche, will stop the superficial madness, but when Kung Fu master Kung Fu attempts to do so, she is gobbled up by a haunted light fixture from hell. Luckily, one of Kung Fu’s dismembered legs manages to kick a painting of Blanche, but it only causes blood to spurt it out that ultimately floods the entire home with hemoglobin. With the entire house flooded with blood, Prof and Fantasy take shelter on a floating floorboard. Prof attempts to read Auntie’s diary to discover the secret of the undead woman’s demented mind, but she is pulled into the pool of water by an evil jar where her prepubescent-like body magically becomes unclad and is ultimately consumed by the bad blood. The only survivor, Fantasy, is soon approached by Gorgeous, but it is revealed in the reflection of the blood that it is really the aunt. Despite knowing better, Fantasy allows Auntie-as-Gorgeous to cradle her, even absurdly calling her, “Mommy.” In the end, Gorgeous’ stepmother Ryoko comes to Auntie’s house to pick up the girls. Auntie, who has inhabited Gorgeous’ body and is dressed in a traditional kimono, tells Ryoko the girls are sleeping but will awake soon because they will be ‘hungry.’ Before Ryoko knows it, she is seduced by Auntie, who shakes her hands and incinerates her to nothing as if touched by a nuclear bomb. 

 A sort of cutesy counter-culture-inspired celluloid softcore propaganda piece urging post-WWII Japanese youth to get over Hiroshima and have hedonistic fun or face an eternity of lonely misery and misanthropy, House eccentrically epitomizes the death of stoicism and the samurai in Japan, symbolically utilizing crude yet charismatic avant-garde pop art to aesthetically molest a traditional Japanese house. Indeed, after viewing House, I could not help but feel guilty for half-enjoying what is sort of the celluloid equivalent of Pop Rocks as a film that is fun to briefly wallow in and digest, but is a ultimately novelty with little to no redeeming qualities. Undoubtedly, I can think of few of films that so hopelessly personify ‘all style and no substance’ as much as House, the perfect film for culturally-retarded Americans to watch to feel culturally enriched or whatever. Personally, when it comes to cinematic ghost stories where furniture eats people, I much prefer the arthouse abortion Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), a film where the imprisoned ghost of decadent English artist Aubrey Beardsley looks on as a bloodthirsty bed consumes hedonistic hippies. Even next to Steve ‘Friday the 13th’ Miner’s similarly themed, lackluster horror-comedy of the same name, House (1986), makes Ôbayashi's haunted house flick seem like a cynical novelty by comparison. With the Japanese schoolgirl characters in the film notably remarking regarding World War II Japanese soldiers that “Men were more manly back then,House ultimately makes the case that the Japs have become too emasculated and decadent after facing devastating defeat, as if the film was directed by a hyperactive schoolgirl under the influence of acid and gummy bears who is still peeved over the fact her mother kicked the bucket a couple years back.  If you're looking for a mildly entertaining yet obscenely outmoded example as to why a world famous right-wing Japanese writer and Renaissance man like Yukio Mishima tried to run a coup d'état to restore the power of the emperor so as to cease the cultural and social degeneration of Japan, House makes for a great example of the sort of aesthetic soulless and philosophical passiveness the master of pen and sword was fighting against.  Indeed, there is something peculiarly repressive about a film like House, which is as violently over-the-top as the Rape of Nanking, yet is ultimately as harmless as an episode of the Power Rangers.

-Ty E

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